REVIEW: The Dears: No Cities Left
The Dears: No Cities Left [Maple Music, 2003] (mp3s)
Three words? An art-pop storm.
If albums were evenings, No Cities Left would be a blackblue sky with pinprick stars, a silver, spinning moon, a hot wind that raises drops of perspiration on your glass of cold red wine. There would be nightingales in the roses, a disco-ball hanging from the ceiling. There's chocolate cake on platters; women in scant, silken dresses.
Did I mention the vampires? There are vampires. They're not cheeseball Counts, mind you; these are vampires of the New Europe, or of New York City and Montreal. They are luscious. Strong. Fiercely intelligent. They swing to Serge Gainsbourg, tango to the tango. When Fugazi is turned up, they shove the shit out of each-other. There are red lips and white glints and the stirrings of something vicious.
But what does this tell you about The Dears' No Cities Left. Not much, I admit. Certainly not as much as the title of the group's 2001 EP, Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique - for that is just what The Dears play. Whereas on their last full-length, End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, "romantique" might as well have meant "boring," here it means "sumptuous." "Bold." "Passionate." No Cities Left is an astonishing record, one that strides from moody, string-laden pop into a lightning-struck rock'n'roll storm. Murray Lightburn is rock's finest crooner - far from the affectations of Rufus Wainwright or Sea Change-style Beck, Lightburn's lush, full, vigourous delivery hurls these songs further and further into the night. "We Can Have It" opens with flickers of keys, the ticking of an electric guitar, the welcoming vista of Lightburn's lyrics: "Last night all the horrible / Things in life stormed through my dreams and / I just want to shut it up / Shut it down / Or shut it off." The drums kick in with force, determination, and as the song surges forward, I can't help but be reminded of Broken Social Scene's "KC Accidental." Both of these Canadian bands are making music with an intense, original vision. They listen to the sound of their instruments, make things out of them.
"Who Are You, Defenders of the Universe?" swaggers over a Jonny Greenwood guitar-line, the lyrics ever desperate-and-sad. "The Second Part" and "Pinned Together, Falling Apart" are closest to The Dears' earlier work, Parisian flair sidling its way into a loud, gorgeous walls of sound. "Don't Lose the Faith" introduces guitar-pop that's almost summery; boy-girl vocals lay an unsettling bed for the Led Zeppelin wailings that cap "Never Destroy Us" (the track finishes, in fact, with a vicious "startagainstartagainstartagain!" punk mosh). All over the record, the group makes fantastic use of a string section that features fellow Montrealer Sam Roberts. The violins and bass carry a lush menace, perfectly partnered with the feral Fender Rhodes on "Expect the Worst" and "No Cities Left."
At sixty-six minutes, No Cities Left is epic in more than one sense of the word. It doesn't overstay its welcome, however: these songs follow strange paths and never cease to surprise. The macabre brushes up against the sensuous, "sunny days" and "ice-cream" appearing next to leeches, plagues and broken backs. The press will tell you that this album almost didn't get made, that The Dears are on tour with Matthew Good (of all people), that they've reclaimed their destiny by signing to an independent label. I'll simply tell you that this is a beautiful, ambitious full-length. If it were an evening it would be a blackblue sky with pinprick stars. And vampires.